Among the misconceptions exhibited by the self-styled nationalist reformers of American foreign policy is that they are immune to the temptations posed by ideological thinking. In fact, their vision of what should constitute American grand strategy is exceedingly idealistic. The distinction between them and their opponents isn’t that they’re remarkably clear-eyed about the world and everyone else is not. It’s that theirs is an ideology that would sacrifice the tangible benefits associated with the kind of idealism that they resent.
Examples of this disposition abound, but Elbridge Colby’s hagiographical depiction of Sen. Josh Hawley’s foreign policy vision suffices to demonstrate this lamentably common folly. Writing in National Review, Colby paints a grim portrait of the 21st century. For him, so many of the suboptimal conditions that prevail today are attributable to (who else?) neoconservatives, whom he insists adhere to a consensus view of foreign affairs that is indistinguishable from that of the center-left. By contrast, Hawley and other Republicans struggling to craft a coherent doctrine around Donald Trump’s preferences are reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from what he derisively calls the “universalist dream.” This euphemism is intended to tarnish the values- and ideals-forward foreign policy that a new generation of self-styled realists—many of whom seem unfamiliar with realism as a theory of international relations—detest.
Colby’s critique is predicated on several flawed conceits. Foremost among them is a wild overestimation of the extent to which America, or any nation, pursues strategic goals abroad solely in pursuit of ideational rather than material objectives. But his point of view also fails to recognize the material benefits associated with the projection of American values as a component of U.S. foreign policy. Such a disregard for those tangible advantages secured as a result of America’s values is precisely the kind of blinkered outlook Colby finds so distasteful in his conservative opponents.
Take, for example, Colby’s appropriate concerns over the threat of great-power conflict presented by a rising China and a declining (and, therefore, reckless) Russia. At the moment, Beijing is facing renewed domestic pressure in Hong Kong, but those pro-democracy protesters are not flying French flags or demanding the liberties enshrined in the Magna Carta. They’re waving American flags, singing the U.S. national anthem, and insisting upon the universal liberties codified in the Constitution. For the pseudo-realist, these rabble-rousers represent an obstacle on the path to more limited accommodations with Beijing. Hence, Donald Trump’s reluctance to unreservedly endorse their cause.
These and other domestic sources of tension represent a check on Beijing’s revisionist ambitions within what it regards as its zone of influence, therefore reducing the risk posed if China embarked on an assault on the existing regional order that could compel an American response. Moreover, China’s ambitious efforts to displace U.S. influence in Africa and Latin America represent a direct threat to our interests, but the Chinese model of social (if not economic) organization is rendered attractive only by virtue of Beijing’s willingness to invest in these nations’ development. Absent American values, the only way the U.S. can counter Chinese influence is by competing for those investment opportunities—a prospect Sen. Hawley would surely find distasteful considering his condemnation of the neoconservative “count not the cost” post-Cold War foreign policy.
American flags are a regular feature of demonstrations in states like Georgia and Ukraine, too; a symbol of the liberty and self-determination under threat from neighboring Russia. Indeed, Moscow finds itself remarkably isolated in the world. Vladimir Putin can count only on the unreserved backing of pariah states like North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba. In an anarchic international environment where hard power alone determines the course of history, Moscow would be successfully courting (or intimidating into submission) not just the post-Soviet “near abroad” but much of East and even Central Europe. But it is not because it cannot, and that has nothing to do with Moscow’s capacity to project power abroad.
The conditions on the European continent are perhaps the pseudo-realist’s biggest blind spot. Colby is quick to note the extent to which the “American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan” failed to transform these states into stable democracies, which is lamentably true (though for distinct reasons). But democracy promotion abroad is an objective not a strategy. And if the paramount aim of U.S. grand strategy reserves the right to aggress against “violent countries to make them peaceful” to avoid being drawn into conflicts, the post-Cold War model to which Europe has adhered has been remarkably successful.
Within Europe’s zone of integration, the U.S.-engineered liberalized order has preserved the longest sustained period of peace in centuries. Eastern Europe’s embrace of the liberal vision after 1989 set it on a course to extend that peace to the Russian border. That peace is today threatened by Russia and its rejection of the liberal ideal. If considerations like cost are to be America’s paramount national security concern, the projection of liberal ideals seems a wise and affordable investment when compared to the expensive prospect of a shattered European peace and a conflict in which, history suggests, the U.S. will be unable to avoid involvement.
American conservatives and particularly the nationalist elements among them remain duly suspicious of supranational institutions that infringe on national sovereignty. But those elements are keen to see the specter of the imperious European Union in virtually every institution, even those multilateral assemblages the U.S. functionally controls and from which it derives the most benefit. Take, for example, the World Trade Organization.
Founded in 1995, the WTO was established to create an international forum with the authority to adjudicate trade disputes, allowing commercial grievances to be separated from the conduct of international affairs and mitigating the prospect of conflict over such clashes (once a relatively common occurrence). The U.S. has been the chief beneficiary of this body’s decision making, but the Trump administration has allowed the body to wither by attrition—vetoing judicial nominations and failing to make its own appointments. The WTO is today operationally defunct, and its trade partners are forming their own de-facto associations over which the U.S. has far less influence to fill the void. This is what it means to be “America first?”
Like Hawley, Colby appears skeptical of markets, but he concedes that they are a necessary tool of American statecraft. The expansion of free markets is, therefore, desirable from a strategic perspective. But it’s not just American naval hegemony that preserves the global trade regime. The international commercial order born out of the ashes of 20th-century Communism was the triumph of an idea—one that first found an intellectual home on the classically liberal right in the U.S. and Great Britain. Both Colby and Hawley endorse the notion that a U.S. foreign policy of any merit must preserve and strengthen the domestic middle class. And since “autarky is a route to penury,” we can assume this is an ideological aspect of American foreign policy with which Hawley is predisposed to agree. But to say as much, it seems, would undermine his efforts to capture the market-skeptic vote to which he has repeatedly pandered.
It is truly lamentable that the conduct of U.S. foreign policy has become just another venue in which tribal domestic political rivalries are adjudicated. But what other conclusions can be reached from the articulation of a doctrine that contains no doctrinal thought? Colby and Hawley are correct in a sense. A purely ideological foreign policy would fast become counterproductive, which is why such a thing has never been pursued by any American president. Most U.S. presidents have understood the instrumental utility derived from the advancement of America’s liberal values. The nationalists would remove a tool from the statecraft toolshed and replace it with nothing at all. That’s not strategy. It’s political posturing.
Noah Rothman is the Associate Editor of Commentary and the author of Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.